Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ego-depletion, dishonesty and bad career decisions?

Check out this article, which talks about stress in terms of "ego-depletion", and what that does to both decision-making and the tendency to take short-cuts in general.

So first, let's talk about stress. I feel like stress became a popular term sometime in the '80s. I was just a kid then, but it was the days of spandex and step aerobics, shoulder pads and big hair. Everyone was working harder to be thinner, more powerful, more competitive.

Stress morphed into the grunge era and emerged looking like cigarette-smoking, burned-out depression in the early '90s.

By the time I was in "training", the culture of science valued stress above all else. Stress was a hallmark of potential success. If you were more stressed than the next guy, that meant you were working harder. Everyone respected the hardest worker. It didn't matter if you were working smart, or if your science was working at all. It mattered what kind of hours you put in; how much you complained; how tired you looked. Who saw you leaving in the early dawn after spending the night in the lab. It was almost as important to be seen exhibiting signs of stress as it was to complain about it afterwards, when you had gone home, slept a while, and showered.

But I think this article and the idea that we might make poor decisions under stress is worth considering seriously.

For example, are we being dishonest with ourselves when we rationalize why anyone should deserve to suffer in science careers? Are we rationalizing pain as "part of the training process"? As a "learning experience"? Are we telling ourselves we need to toughen ourselves and our students up, because we're too tired to realize that's a stupid way to think about a career that actually demands creativity and a fresh perspective?

Well, yes. I think so.

I also think the idea that stress and poor decision-making might lead to cheating is relevant to science. I think examples like Retraction Watch help document the extent to which not all scientists view it as a noble profession. Or maybe they just are too tired to resist the temptation to fudge the data and hope everyone else is too tired to notice it's a big fat lie.

Meanwhile, the honest people are headed for certain burnout. At the end of the day, is there any amount of hard work that can win out over the cheaters who never get caught? Or who are rationalizing why they should protect each other? How much ego-depletion does it take to fuel protectionist groupthink?


At 6:42 PM, Blogger Marni Dee Sheppeard said...

Protectionist groupthink is entrenched whenever the powerful are groupthinkers. This has been the case for some time in theoretical physics. I guess it affects all fields. When academia is full of groupthinkers, you know you live in 1984.

At 8:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is something that has been bothering me since mid-grad school... I wonder why is it that people in labs walk around proud of being miserable as if it is a badge of honor.

It's one thing to stay long hours in the lab because of some obsessive search for one stupid effect. But this attitude won't lead to burning out because once you get tired, the search is not fun anymore and you give it a rest.

But throughout academia - and particularly among the postdoc/grad student crowd - I see a lot of people that put a lot of work due to perceived pressure instead of passion. The weird thing is that their productivity isn't much higher, because these people are highly inefficient.

I was one of these and I noticed that I was screwing up a lot by doing mistakes or by being sloppy in the lab. Once I decided to do thinks in the timing and the way that made sense to me, my overall efficiency increased - I was doing less experiments but I needed less experiments because now they were of higher quality. And I wasn't hating everything related to work anymore.

At 12:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your blog is basically my life. Down to not getting a space when joining lab. I finally got a space and got kicked out of it twice to make room for other post-docs. I am a female post-doc in biosciences debating quitting science. Thanks for what you write.

At 12:22 AM, Anonymous Forrest said...

I've noticed that the degree of "thriving on stress" or "thriving on competition" varies significantly between departments/areas.

For example, I've noticed that Electrical Engineering departments are often much more "thrive on stress; masochism is everything," while Computer Science departments are often "hey, let's collaborate and build something useful together." These cultural aspects have played a pretty big part in my academic and research choices.

At 8:10 AM, Blogger Jamie Salcedo said...

The 80s/90s connection is pretty good. I've seen the gamut of stress from my friends that are or currently enrolled in grad school programs, forensic science center, biomedical engineering, etc. and I don't really envy them. I was originally going for biotech but I backed out and went into CS instead. Best choice I made.


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